Fleabag: Three final minutes at a bus stop will go down as classic
Fleabag series 2 review: Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterly series caught us in a warped relationship
Fleabag: Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the final episode. Photograph: Luke Varley/Two Brothers/BBC
If Fleabag were a conventional comedy, the kind in which outrageous behaviour is indulged and applauded until it is safely resolved in a happy-ever-after romance, or one character rushing through an airport to declare their true feelings, we would have seen the ending of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s masterly show a mile off.
As it happens, in the conclusion of this groundbreaking comedy, one character does rush off to an airport, to declare her true feelings, but firmly off camera. We stayed, instead, with the end of the affair that has guided the series, something that always seemed inevitable but felt no less surprising, or moving.
“I think you know how to love better than any of us,” Fleabag’s father (Bill Paterson) tells her. “That’s why you find it all so painful.” She isn’t so sure. “I don’t find it painful,” she tells the camera, in a customary aside. But the episode is shot through with heartbreak.
As the jokes all but fade away, this character you have come to know with an uncommon intimacy never seems so sincere, or so exposed
As a writer Waller-Bridge seemed to find the mother lode of sexual frisson in a dangerous flirtation with Andrew Scott’s priest – charming, tippling, wavering, unattainable. The “hot priest” trope has been a source of arch titillation, from Sex and the City to Mission: Impossible III, but here it became subversively erotic, nowhere more so than one drunken confession (literally) with an instruction, somewhere between sacrilege and role play, to “kneel”.
But in some ways their relationship really was based on confession, or at least honest exchanges: Scott was always spookily aware when she broke the fourth wall.
“Do you want to fuck a priest or do you want to fuck God?” Fiona Shaw’s therapist had asked her early in the series. By the end of the show Fleabag flipped the question, asking, in the afterglow of Scott’s defrocking: “Is it me or is it God?”
If anything the finale was about the dissolution of romance. Kneeling for quite a different reason, more empowered than supplicant, her sister, Claire (Sian Clifford), begged her rat of a husband (Brett Gelman) – a character neither redeemed nor demonised when he pleaded, “I’m not a bad person, I just have a bad personality” – to leave for good.
Her stepmother (Olivia Colman) had no similar insights, just a retinue of shallowly acquired acquaintances – “And this is Asif, my bisexual Syrian refugee friend” – among whom, blanking on his name, seemed to be her new husband.
Yet if all we remember of the episode, years from now, is its three final minutes at a bus stop, it will still go down as a classic.
“It’s God, isn’t it?” Fleabag says to the priest as the jokes all but fade away, and this character you have come to know with an uncommon intimacy never seems so sincere, or so exposed, as when she says, “I love you.”
Over the series the feeling grew stronger that Fleabag and her viewers were caught in a warped relationship: fun, daring and exciting, but confining
Her dad was right; it is exquisitely painful, the bitter-sweet tragedy of having loved and lost.
The deeper twist, playing with its own conventions, is that this is also the experience of the audience. Over the series the feeling grew stronger that Fleabag and her viewers were caught in a warped relationship: fun, daring and exciting, but confining.
As she begins to walk home, jilted, the camera follows. She returns a small shake of her head and continues alone. Word is that there will be no third series. What is the stranger sensation to be left with at the end of such a remarkably funny, surprisingly affecting and finely conceived television show? To feel that we have just been dumped? Or to realise that she is better off without us?